We have created a force, Capitalism, which deforms, by its nature, the culture that embraces it too closely. Where public education was once approved as a public good, it is now a profit-center—its students have become its customers. Where incarceration was once a sad necessity, it is now a profit-center—its prisoners have become its employees. Where political office was once a empowering of one citizen to oversee the public welfare, it is now a self-perpetuating fund-raising organization. Its office-holders have stopped formulating the greatest good for the greatest number and now calculate merely the best way to increase campaign revenue.
What went wrong? Let’s step back a bit, and look at ourselves in the past. In the past we struggled against nature and against ourselves. In the past, being strong, even violent, often meant winning the day. But now we have technology that must be restrained, weaponry that ought never to be used, unspoiled habitats that still provide clean air, clean water, and biodiversity—which must be protected, now that their numbers are grown so few. It has become so easy to hurt and kill each other that to continue the violent ways of the past means certain slaughter—and we have ample evidence of this, and will continue to have more such.
In the past, there was no mechanism for international coordination or compromise. The United Nations and the World Court have virtually no power in their present states, but their very creations were indicative of our awareness that both war and crime are evils without borders, and that the best way to combat them is to organize forces of good that recognize no borders. The fact that these institutions remain little more than place-keepers, bookmarks on good ideas, is due largely to our focus on Capitalism. Ceding sovereign power is too close to ceding ownership to sit well in the minds of the rich and powerful—not to mention the benefits that multinationals obtain from the ‘chinese walls’ between the laws of taxation and regulation in separate nations.
In the past, we could rely on the large-ness of the globe and the chaotic nature of global humanity—secrets were easily kept and keeping the masses uninformed was child’s play. In large part, we colluded in our own ignorance by hewing to the concept that some things were too distasteful to discuss publicly. And we colluded in our tacit agreement that women and girls were somehow less than men and boys, that dark skins were somehow less than pale skins, that the rich were more worthy than the poor, etc. But these obsolete attitudes have given way to the clarity of holding our leaders accountable. They may still get away with corruption, collusion, obfuscation, and obstructionism—but they may no longer pull the strings of our traditional hatreds without a good-sized minority calling them out in the media for this kind of manipulation.
America is particularly vulnerable to modern changes. We have, historically speaking, just reached the end of our growth as a country—we didn’t add our last two states until 1958. The ‘becoming’ of the fifty states was still alive with changes, construction, development, and growth until very recently. But now we have the many small towns being strangled out of existence by malls and superstores, which have themselves begun to see oblivion in the face of online shopping. We have fishing villages on every coastline that have withered under the onslaught of commercial fisheries. We have industry after industry disappearing behind the waves of robotics, computers, and the internet—millions of human jobs that need never be done again. Good news for the business owner, bad news for the worker—and the culture.
We seem to have fully blossomed—the ripeness of American life during the last half of the last century appears to have been a peak—and we see signs everywhere that America is beginning to de-stabilize. Opportunity has always been the main engine behind American ascendance. The growing income-inequality, the stranglehold of big business lobbies on legislation, and many other post-modern symptoms of Capitalist excesses which encroach on the weaknesses in Democracy—these things bring the notion of one person striking out into business for themselves further and further from reality and closer to a nostalgic fantasy akin to the horse-drawn buggy.
There is also an apparent willfulness to our current stagnation. In the past quarter century we’ve gone from first among nations in college graduates, to twelfth—yet we have no national (or state or local) race to renew and improve our public education system. We have not only ceased to expand our infrastructure with new roads, bridges, and power-grids, we’ve lost the will to maintain the infrastructure we had.
We have always deluded ourselves into having faith in Capitalism, as if it were some branch of physics—a mathematical purity, self-correcting, self-policing, compelled by its nature to be of benefit to all mankind. Even today there are those who will enthusiastically explain how all our difficulties are caused by our refusal to let Capitalism have its head, so to speak. But economics has never been merely a branch of mathematics—it contains within it (recognized or not) the history of humankind’s struggle over ownership and possession.
When we talk about double-entry accounting, computerized inventory databases, and how to calculate the 8.25% sales tax on your department store purchase—it’s easy to think of Capitalism as having the precision of a gram scale and the inherent fairness of a court of law. But consider, dear reader, the familiar figure of the business-owner—an entrepreneur starts up a business and hires employees to do the work. The business-owner pays the employees a salary. The business makes a profit (one hopes). The business-owner pays the salaries and keeps all the rest of the profit. This is normal.
But does that paradigm have the elegance and inherent fairness of a mathematical equation? Is it right? What if the company makes millions of dollars for the business-owner, and the employees’ salaries are a tiny fraction of that? Capitalism states that a business-owner, by virtue of owning the business, is perfectly right to retain all the profits to him-or-herself. Further, it is perfectly right to pay employees’ salaries based on the cost of labor, not on the value of the product of the labor. I suspect, without having lived a lifetime of Capitalist culture, I might see something unjust in that set-up.
If we look at the history of the popular music industry, we see examples of musical artists whose greatness resulted in mass sales of recordings and licenses—all profits of which went to business-owners whose only justification for this was a legal agreement of ownership of the musician’s creations as terms of employment. And we also see court cases where this glaring injustice has, more recently, resulted in rulings that award greater protection to the creators of original content. In spite of that, popular music (and the entertainment industry in general) is still rife with business practices that reward those with ownership over those that produce what is owned.
Back when employees in many industries could plan on starting a business of their own, this inherently unfair system had a silver lining. The idea was you were a virtual slave of someone else until you could manage to own your own place—at which point you would become one of the slave-owners, and could forget about that whole mess. In many ways, it mimicked the old concept of parenting. But with giant corporations filling virtually every marketing and service niche available, even the new businesses that appear out of thin air (like programming ‘apps’) are ephemeral things, quickly consolidated into the workings of some electronics giant’s new division.
The current reality for the 99% is employment—and even that modern enslavement is considered dream-worthy to the substantial percentage of chronically unemployed. The average law-abiding citizen is given working hours, corporate policies to adhere to, bosses they must obey—and as little as possible in the way of compensation or benefits. In the old days, some business-owners believed that profit-sharing programs would increase productivity and loyalty among workers—this old applesauce is roundly laughed at today, in spite of its still being true, even without it being practiced.
And that is one example of what has changed about Capitalism—business-owners once looked for ‘win-win’-type solutions—our new killer-Capitalism insists that only the ‘Win’, singular, is of any relevance. Worse was the Dilbert-ification of the office environment. Cubicles introduced a blatant ‘cattle’ aspect to office work—the sameness, the lack of elbow room, the almost purposeful de-humanization of the work area. But to me the greatest over-reach was the appearance in employee-policy handbooks of the banning of personal items at workstations—suddenly, no one could put up a picture of their children, keep a potted plant, indulge in a tchotchke (or ten). While there was truth to the claim that some abused the privilege and created cluttered, unprofessional work areas—it still seemed an opportunity for guidelines and limits, rather than a total ban on personalization.
But banning something humane fits right in with the mind-set of business-owners and their managerial goons. Give any human being the slightest whiff of authority and suddenly they’re not happy unless they’re telling everyone else what to do—it’s human nature.
While the dehumanizing of employees is certainly nothing new, it becomes an issue when civilization seems to measure progress by Capitalist sign-posts rather than the causes of humanity and justice. The arrow of human rights followed a seemingly direct course, right from the Enlightenment, through the American Revolution, right up to the defeats of Fascism and Communism. We continue to win victories in this battle with the legal end of segregation, the fights for feminism, rights for the disabled, and gay rights. But we also see Capitalism taking some of our self-evident human rights away from humanity as a whole (whether in their roles as employees or consumers) and for reasons that many deem justified (such is their submergence in the logic of money).
Consider the air, dear reader. Is there any significance to the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, or the right to free speech—if we are denied the right to breathe—or to drink clean water? Much wailing has gone up, since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and for all the decades after—and even now—over the fact that we can’t stop destroying the environment without destroying civilization. But I don’t see it that simply. We could curtail our destruction of the environment and still maintain the bulk of civilization—but we would have to destroy Capitalism to do it. We would have to end the primacy of ownership over justice and place humanity’s welfare above the posturings of nations and stockholders and financiers. Civilization could easily come out of it better off—but certain very powerful individuals would not. And that would mean war. And war always has the truth as its first casualty—so that’s not going to work.
And don’t get me wrong—I’m well aware that people will always find some other way to use each other, and hurt each other, even without money as the nail to hang it all on. But Capitalism has grown into a globally-interlocking behemoth with a momentum even its One-Percenters can no longer control. It forces all of us, nay, hurries all of us towards the cliff of profit-without-consequence. It destroys ways-of-life for whole communities, corrupts the governance both local and national, and dehumanizes everything that can be turned to profit—which, in today’s Capitalism, means everything and everyone.
While we continue to fight for human rights in our laws and in our government, we lose more ground than we gain due to the encroachments of business practices. Business leaders and their pawns (including many a congressperson and senator) will explain that homelessness, lack of health care, indecent wages, and the loss of clean air and water—are all things that must be looked at in terms of profit and loss. We must begin to ask, “Whose profit? Whose loss?” Is one person’s right of ownership greater than another’s right to survive? And if it is, why do we bother to talk about human rights? If the world’s economy can be held over our heads while plutocrats lord it over the needy millions, and trash the planet, and dissolve our way of life, is Capitalism our guiding light—or is it the train entering the far end of the tunnel?
Like all evils, Capitalism is deceptively simple—with darkly complex underpinnings. Ideas of charity and sacrifice are excluded from the logic of business—but not from the business of being a human being. Ideas of conservation and renewable resources, that were so idealist-seeming, have become matters of species survival—and money-lovers are still trying to argue that fact away, because ownership and responsibility don’t align very well. The wealthy try to build high-rise apartments that overshadow Central Park—as if the substantiality of the building overrules the existence of the mere shadow. And this is the problem with Capitalism—it deals in the immediate and substantial and discounts the ephemeral, where true meaning is often found.
Once, Americans could turn away from the harsh world of money, industry, and big cities—and find a haven in the more natural corners of the earth. Capitalism was a mosh-pit in which we could choose to participate or walk away. Civilization was once so small that this could be accomplished simply by climbing up into the mountains that surrounded a populous valley. But then it became a matter of going where people could barely survive, like the arctic circle, or the deserts. Now, of course, the world is full. We may not bother to grace the inhabitants with infrastructure, education, or even sufficient food and water—but we nevertheless ‘do business’ there, wherever ‘there’ is. We drill for oil, mine for diamonds or coal, chop down the forests and poach the wildlife (what’s left of it).
We destroy, in the process, the old ways of life, the flora and fauna that once supported undeveloped cultures, we net all the fish, kill all the whales—we might as well shoot each and every one of those people in the head. And all because some multinational has so much money that they can pay the tin-pot dictators that have ‘sovereign rule’ over these victims. It was bad enough when we thought that only the third world was vulnerable to the moneyed interests—now we have the same kinds of people paying off our own politicians, running oil pipelines from one end of America to the other, spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing off all the bees with pesticides, and using untested GMO crops in place of healthy foods. We’re all going to die—and we are all unified in our support of our killer, Capitalism.
Capitalism was a means to an end—prosperity. Now that prosperity for all mankind is a possibility, Capitalism has become the only thing keeping us from it. We crossed the finish line, but business-owners want us all to keep running our rat race, keep up productivity, keep those profits rolling in—it’s insane. But I don’t want to get rid of money—that’s just as crazy. No, we need something more nuanced—limits on money. We need limits on what money can buy, and limits on which places and things are considered outside of the rule of Capitalism, by virtue of their ethical or ecological qualities. And to start out with the most important change, we need separation of cash and state.
The pilgrims, having left Europe because of religious persecution, found that they had brought religious strife with them—and saw separation of church and state as the only solution to their looming self-destruction. They did not think their religion was unimportant—quite the contrary. But they could see that religion empowered by law was a weapon that could cut everyone. Neither is Capitalism unimportant, but Money as the only Law is an equally dangerous blade, or more so—as it is poised to cut the entire world open.